Thursday, 22 March 2012

Addiction and Spirituality - A Research Area Whose Time Has Come?

The Centre For Faiths And Public Policy  at the University of Chester staged a groundbreaking conference on 14 March 2012, entitled "Addiction: a spiritual illness with a spiritual solution?" 

Addiction to alcohol or gambling is a personal tragedy for addicts and those who share their lives. But the Nonconformist churches have long understood that addiction is also a social justice issue with deep spiritual roots. It also raises questions about the market's right to promote potentially harmful commodities.

Leading academics and health professionals are coming to understand that addiction is a complex condition best studied and treated through a mixed-mode approach. Accordingly, this conference featured a fascinatingly diverse range of speakers including doctors, recovering alcoholics, theologians and scientists. But the unifying factor was the importance of the ‘fellowships’, of which the first and most famous is Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dr Wendy Dossett, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Chester, spoke of her research  into spiritual experiences among the general public. The fellowships are genuine new spiritual movements which have grown outside established religions and from which academics have much to learn. This is the background to the University of Chester’s Higher Power Project. She mentioned Carl Jung’s observation that the only cure for addiction is a profound spiritual experience.

Two recovering (Anonymous) alcoholics then gave their testimony. Both spoke in powerful terms of such emotions as anxiety, anger, fear, resentment and defensiveness that characterised their addictions. The support and fellowship of AA and the concept of a Higher Power (rather than conventional religion) were was integral to both man’s recovery.

Prof Chris Cook of Durham, a Psychiatrist and Anglican Minister, spoke of the different models for addiction: as a moral issue, a disease, a matter of excessive appetites or a theological issue. Drawing on theological and philosophical perspectives, he explained the difference between 1st order desires such as “wanting a drink” and 2nd order desires such as “wanting not to need a drink”, and discussed the effectiveness of religion or belief in a Higher Power in strengthening 2nd order desires. Contra the delusion of a value-free scientific approach to addiction, some kind of moral model is essential.

Dr Ashraf Khan described how he was convinced against his initial beliefs of the need for the AA approach, beyond the mere ‘disease model’ of addiction. He outlined the history of the fellowships and stressed the importance of the language of acceptance, humility, gratitude and compassion in treating the state of resentment typical of addiction.

Dr Lynden Finlay spoke of her work in developing a version of the 12-step programme which is non-religious, as many are put off by 'God talk'. She explained how clinics like hers treat the physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual damage suffered by addicts, and claimed that spirituality and morality are human realities independent of religion.

Wynford Ellis Owen observed that “when a young man drinks before a party, he is arranging not to be himself” and explained that for some, the human realities of separate existence and self-consciousness lead to loneliness and shyness. For some, alcohol seems to deliver a magical solution, a short-term spiritual experience where they finally feel at one with themselves and ‘God’. But addicts cannot admit their pain and live in the illusion of control. Recovery paradoxically involves becoming vulnerable and toughening up and the keys are honesty and self-knowledge.

Sandra Hobbes of Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs drew parallels between Quaker spirituality and the 12-Steps and spoke of addiction as a disease of the spirit.

Prof Jim Orford speaking as a scientist challenged assumptions that addiction is merely a brain disease; that addiction-related policy decisions always need to be ‘evidence based’; and that supply has nothing to do with moral issues. These beliefs result in a default situation where the industries continually expand in the absence of the kind of evidence that is hard to obtain and not as central to the debate as often assumed. We should question whether we truly want a world of ever-expanding gambling and alcohol industries. Current approaches to addiction are overly mechanistic and technological – approaches falsely equated with being scientific. He proposed that in many ways addiction is a habit, but an unfortunate and powerful one. 

One element that was perhaps missing was a vision of spirituality that promotes a flourishing life, rather than waiting for disease to force humans to face their deeper selves. Speakers raised questions around the deeper meaning of spirituality and addiction, but offered no answers. Arguably the churches have a key potential role in adding this dimension, but in recent years they have concentrated on the public health aspects of addiction. 

As such it was helpful that Orford mentioned that New Zealand has a progressive approach to addiction policy making, partly because of Maori culture, which describes 4 wellbeings: spiritual, environmental, family-kinship and economic (in that order of importance). In the West the idea that material questions come first is so embedded that even Christians often accept it without challenge. Comparing the spiritual traditions of Christianity with other cultures may play an important role in challenging values that put questions of 'bread' before the value and meaning of life.